The Broncos, Aztecs, and Bulldogs all think they run the conference. Are any of them right?
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With the talk of SDSU leaving the MW heating up, the debate over which university has been the best program has been started again with a new flair. Has SDSU really been the best program? Is that why they might leave while others are left behind? If the Aztecs have been the best then why don’t they have the most football championships? They haven’t even been the best in the west division, let alone the conference, so what gives?
First, let’s get one thing out of the way. While on-field success is a factor in conference realignment, it is by no means the primary factor. If it was, UCLA and their 54% winning percentage over the last 10 years wouldn’t be going to the Big 10. The same goes for Texas and their 55% winning percentage. Neither has been considered the top of their conference, but they have great brand names and market sizes, with good enough athletics, so they get the call up. So when fans of non-SDSU teams say they’re leaving due to location and not success, they’re sort-of right, but it’s not exactly the insult it is often intended to be.
Many fans (including myself) would love to see some sort of promotion/relegation system similar to what European soccer leagues do. If that were to happen, likely each of Boise St, SDSU, and Fresno St. would get a call up, or at least would’ve gotten one previously. The point of this examination isn’t to diminish the accomplishments of any program, or to argue for who should get called up and who shouldn’t. The goal is simply to attempt to determine who has been the best in the conference in as objective a way as possible.
To conduct the analysis 3 factors will be observed.
First is conference winning percentage over the last ten years in both football and basketball. Out of conference games absolutely matter, but they get harder to compare in terms of win percentage when one team is playing lowly New Mexico State level teams and the other is playing teams like UCF or Utah, so only conference games will be looked at to help balance the schedules.
Next will be championships won, once again in both football and basketball. In the end dominance is all about winning the championship, so a (supposedly) easy way to determine which program has been the best is to count the rings.
Lastly, appearances in championship games will be counted. This has a couple of effects. First, teams that make the championship game should be rewarded for making it that far as opposed to being treated like the bottom feeders of the conference. Secondly, basketball can get an unfair advantage since it has two championships each year, regular season and tournament. Counting only the championship games reduces the impact of the basketball regular season championships, while rewarding one for football, as to make the championship game you’ve had to win your division, whihc can be a form of regular season championship.
Z-scores will be taken to accurately compare the scores from all components can be boiled down into one number to be easy to compare.
Other sports could (and arguably should) be counted in this analysis. However, impacts on brand value, prestige, and media value come primarily from football and men’s basketball. Fans outside of your school won’t care if your track and field team won the championship this year. So until that changes, the focus is on football and men’s basketball.
In order to balance out the impact basketball has on things like prestige and media value, it will be weighted at 20% of the overall score, with football making up the other 80%.
To no ones surprise, over the past 10 years Boise St. has dominated the conference in football. Their winning percentage of 83.1% is more than 11 points higher than the second place team, SDSU at 71.8%. Their Z-Score shows they’re about three times better than the 3rd place team.
Basketball shows something similar, but with the top two schools flipped. San Diego St. has been by far the most dominant team in basketball in terms of winning percentage, leading by a similar amount of points despite having a lower number overall. Boise St. comes in at second.
When combined the results have Boise St. and SDSU neck and neck, with Boise St. getting the slight edge. Their dominance in football was slightly better, so their overall score was slightly better.
What really matters is winning championships though, right? Maybe trophies will help put some separation at the top.
San Diego St. has almost twice as many total championships as the next closest team in Boise St. However, the vast majority of them came in basketball, which is the less impactful sport. It can’t be discounted however, and even when giving basketball only 20% of the total credit, SDSU has been so dominant there while keeping up in football that they come out on top. Boise St. comes in second for tying for the most football championships and also winning a few basketball championships. Fresno St. comes in third, primarily on its football prowess. The Bulldogs don’t have a great winning percentage, but they seem to focus all they’re good into a few seasons.
It seems counting championships doesn’t help to separate teams. Maybe championship appearances will.
San Diego St. once again takes the lead by having almost twice as many appearances in championship games as the second-place team in Boise St. There are three certainties in life. Death, taxes, and the Aztecs making an appearance in the conference tournament final for basketball.
Boise St. on the other hand has been very good in football, making the championship game six times. The total helps them gain separation from Fresno St. who has “only” made it five times.
When adjusting everything 80/20 Boise St. comes out on top this time. Football is worth more, and their dominance in football is enough to put them over the top despite having fewer appearances overall. San Diego St. and Fresno St. tie for second, a fact that likely irks both fan bases.
Utah St. is the most balanced, but their lack of consistent dominance leaves them behind the top three.
So, which program has been the best? Can any program claim they’ve “carried” the conference?
When it comes to combining the top two sports, not really. Boise St. has been the best in football, by a pretty healthy margin. Fresno St. likely comes in second with SDSU close behind due to being above average more consistently. Neither Boise St. nor Fresno St. have matched San Diego St. in terms of basketball though. It’s telling that the top two teams in every measure were the same though.
When combining everything Boise St. comes out as slightly better than San Diego St. Their football dominance really carries them. It is a very slim margin though. It seems fair to call either team the flagship program, especially if one switch between sports. That’s not the answer fans want, but looking at the numbers it’s the most accurate one.
Fresno St. has some work to do to catch up, and none of the other programs really come close. UNLV, despite the bravado of their fans, comes in last.
Other factors could also be added in of course. Non-conference performance could play a role. How should one weight Boise State’s Fiesta bowl win in 2014? Or SDSU’s run to the title game this past March Madness? Overall those things likely don’t change much.
The fact of the matter is that over the past decade, Boise St. and San Diego St. have been programs 1A and 1B in the conference. Utah St. has been making moves recently but have a long way to go. Fresno St. fans like to talk big, and have some ground to stand on, just not as much as they need. UNLV fans also like to talk big but their programs don’t back it up.
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